Children’s storyteller Mo Willems visits Mosier Elementary School

  • Mo Willems reads a question from a Mosier Elementary School student during the presentation. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mo Willems reads one of his books to a group of students at Mosier Elementary School Thursday afternoon. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mo Willems gets a high-five from a Mosier Elementary School student during the presentation. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mo Willems talks to a group of students at Mosier Elementary School Thursday afternoon. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Friday, February 09, 2018

SOUTH HADLEY — An award-winning children’s author and illustrator had a message for students at Mosier Elementary School on Thursday: They’re just like him.

“Do you like to make up stories? Do you like to make drawings?” Northampton native Mo Willems asked the restless second-graders sitting on the cafeteria floor. “Then that makes you an author illustrator just like me.”

The author’s visit was part of his mission to inspire young readers in struggling schools.

Wiggling, dancing and shouting as he read aloud two illustrated stories, Willems brought to life the books that the students read as part of the school’s curriculum. After the presentation, he gifted each of the 139 second-graders one of his books, and donated 60 picture books by various authors to the school library.

“It’s about literacy, and an effort to have kids reading books by real authors and also thinking of themselves as authors,” said Brook Beaulieu, a reading specialist for the school. “Also, just seeing him as a real person. I think sometimes that entity of an author is mysterious to kids.”

Each year, Willems visits one Title 1 school, meaning a school where a high percentage of students come from low-income families. Usually he books visits years in advance, but when another school cancelled in December, he reached out to the South Hadley school that contacted him just months earlier.

“Of course, we jumped on it and said ‘absolutely,’” Mosier Principal Paul Goodhind said. “I’ve had other authors visit other schools before, but never one this animated. We’re lucky to have him.”

Danielle Kotfila, another reading specialist, played an instrumental role in getting Willems to come to the school. Working in small groups for 30 minutes at a time, reading specialists help students by supplementing regular classroom education with specialized instruction and attention. Their positions are paid for by federal funds through the Title 1 program.

Earlier in the week, students thought of questions for Willems and wrote them on colored strips of paper for him to choose at random. In response to one question, Willems said he wrote his first book in second grade; a story about a bumbling hero who lost his brain in a space accident, called “Laser Brain.”

“For them to hear that he wrote his first book in second grade, that’s huge,” Kotfila said. “It’s inspiring. Maybe there’s another Mo Willems hidden among them now.”

Willems won six Emmy awards between 1993 and 2002 working as a writer and animator for “Sesame Street,” all while performing stand-up comedy around New York City and other animation work for Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Three of his books have won the Caldecott Honor, including his first published 15 years ago, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!”

“The days I write are the days I turn off my telephone, I don’t look at my computer,” Willems said, explaining his writing process to the students. He starts in a large room, banging his head against a wall until he comes up with an idea, a seed, that he plants in a notebook and returns to water and grow.

“And then eventually it grows and grows and grows and I keep coming back to it for a long time until it becomes a giant beautiful tree with beautiful fruit,” Willems said. “That I can cut down and burn for profit.”

The now 49-year-old Willems grew up in New Orleans, and after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 he returned to visit schools devastated by the storm. Seeing they had nothing, and knowing the importance of literacy and education, he started sending books to his friends in Louisiana, and has not stopped.

“That was a transformative moment,” Willems said. “There’s not much I can do but the little I can do I know I have to at least try.”

Since Willems partnered with the nonprofit First Book seven years ago, the organization has donated more than 62,000 of his books to second graders in Title 1 schools in Louisiana and Massachusetts. First Book has distributed more than 170 million books and educational resources to children in need in over 30 countries since its founding in 1992.

“For a lot of kids, writing can be hard. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of grit to get through the process,” said Jennifer Weeks, who teaches second grade. “Seeing someone who is a celebrated author having maybe the same kind of struggle they do from time to time and identifying that can be really helpful.”

In partnership with the Eric Carle Museum and First Books, Willems now puts on an annual “Friendiversary” in celebration of his two iconic characters, Elephant and Piggie. As part of the celebration, the organization distributes books to schools in Massachusetts and Louisiana, Willems visits and donates books to a Title 1 school, and the Eric Carle museum offers free admission for the day.

“Someone who writes these books for kids must really love them,” Beaulieu said. “He knows what kids are going to find funny. Its so fun to read them.”

This Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is the next “Friendiversary” celebration at the museum. The first several hundred attendees will receive free copies of Willems’ books, and free roundtrip transportation will be provided for families from the Holyoke Mall bus stop and the public parking lot behind Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield.

“If a kid has a book in their home, they are exponentially less likely to go to prison, more likely to have fulfilling jobs and stable relationships,” Willems said. “There is a direct correlation. To have a book in your home is a real game-changer.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com